Episode 28: Ryukyuan Language Documentation with Michinori Shimoji

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2021/05/19/episode-28-ryukyuan-language-documentation-with-michinori-shimoji/

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and today’s episode is with Michinori Shimoji. Michinori Shimoji is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Kyushu University in Japan. He is the author of A Grammar of Irabu, a Southern Ryukyuan Language, and he is also the editor of the Handbook of Ryukyuan Languages along with Patrick Heinrich and Shinsho Miyara. He is also the editor of An Introduction to Ryukyuan Languages, along with Thomas Pellard. His research is centered on fieldwork-based descriptions of Ryukyuan languages, empirical and inductive generalizations of linguistic systems and structure, with a particular emphasis on typological generalizations.

So this episode was really exciting for me to record. Michinori Shimoji is someone who is kind of a hero of mine from when I started just thinking about studying Ryukyuan languages. He was actually one of the first, or maybe even the first, linguist to treat Ryukyuan languages as independent languages rather than dialects of Japanese, and yeah, and he’s just someone who I’ve really admired for a long time, so I’m really excited to share this episode with you. Something that he said which I haven’t heard from other guests on the podcast is that he considers himself a semi-insider. So “insider researcher” is a term that I learned from Khairunnisa in episode 5, and it means “a linguist who is working within their own community.” And of course, this is a fluid concept; positionality changes and ebbs and flows. But for Michinori Shimoji, he said he considers himself a semi-insider because he works with the community of his father, so where his father grew up, and it’s his father’s side of the family, their community. So he did not actually grow up in Irabu, but he still has that connection to that language and to that culture. So yeah, so I’m really excited to share this episode with everyone, and I hope that Ryukyuanists and Shimanchu people will enjoy this episode as much as I did.

Thank you so much, Michinori-san, for coming onto Field Notes. I really appreciate you sharing your time with us.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, and thank you very much for having me as a guest.

MTB: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. To start, can you share with us how you first became a linguist?

Michinori Shimoji: Okay. I first specialized in anthropology when I was an undergraduate student. I chose this field of research because I had a strong interest in humans and their unique cultures, and I also liked to ask why they are so different when they are genetically the same. This way, I started to study anthropology, and students of anthropology usually learn basics of linguistic analysis because language is the first obstacle for any fieldworkers, you know, and the basic knowledge of linguistics can help fieldworkers understand the language of the field place and describe their oral cultures (like rituals, songs, material names, and so on) in a precise way. It was funny how I was particularly fascinated by linguistics rather than the main research area (I mean anthropology). To me, linguistics was like solving a complicated puzzle created by generations of the language community, and I started to believe that studying a complex language system per se is one good way to understand human culture, as language is the most sophisticated non-material culture.

MTB: So that was when you were doing your undergraduate degree in Japan, right? So you weren’t working on Irabu at that time.

Michinori Shimoji: No, I first studied Palauan, an Austronesian language, as I had interest in cultures and languages of the Pacific. Palauan was relatively a well-studied language, and for an MA student like me, it was easier to start with this kind of language than dealing with a language which has never been described before, you know. But at the same time, I had to choose a very specific topic to make my study meaningful, because there is a lot of literature on it. It was like picking out one specific topic out of the complex language system in an isolated manner. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I wanted to deal with the entire system of a language from scratch. This is why I decided to choose language which has never been described, or little described, before and to describe the complex language system as a whole in the form of a descriptive grammar. Naturally, I started reading descriptive grammars of lesser-known languages all over the world, especially endangered languages, and Bob Dixon (who is the greatest contemporary linguist and grammar writer, in my personal opinion) was my hero, and he… I knew that he used to teach at Australian National University, and Australia National University was and still is one of the best institutions to study ways to write descriptive grammars of lesser-known languages. So I decided to go to ANU as a PhD student, and later on I finally decided to take up Ryukyuan to describe, you know, for my PhD thesis because nobody had ever described it in the form of a descriptive grammar at the time. As you know, it is now very common that Ryukyuan is treated as a group of different languages, and there are dozens of grammars published, but when I started to study Ryukyuan back in 2005, Ryukyuan was mostly studied just as dialects of Japanese, and everybody was keen on comparing specific issues like verb conjugation, accent, and so on with those of Japanese. Ryukyuan was not regarded as independent languages by researchers, and so I decided to be the first linguist who regards Ryukyuan as independent languages and write a descriptive grammar of it, and I actually became one. Another important fact behind my decision to study Ryukyuan was that my subject language, Irabu Ryukyuan, was my father’s native language and Irabu Ryukyuan was one of the endangered languages spoken in the Ryukyus. All Ryukyuan languages are endangered, but Irabu Ryukuan was a relatively, you know, highly endangered language, so I decided to take up that language for description.

MTB: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a semi-insider researcher. Can you talk more about that and what you mean by that?

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, okay. Yeah, I call myself a semi-insider because Irabu is not my mother tongue but my father’s native language. I grew up in Okinawa, not Miyako, and my dad and mom spoke two different languages in my family, because Irabu and Okinawan are two different languages. They are quite distinct from each other. They naturally talked with each other in standard Japanese rather than their native languages, which is why I failed to acquire either language, Irabu or Okinawan. So I grew up in Okinawa just with standard language or an areal version of the standard language, so I cannot, you know, call myself an insider, but, you know, culturally, I think, you know, part of my identity, it belongs to Miyako, so I would call myself a semi-insider.

MTB: Do you think that your role as a semi-insider, versus someone like me who is an outsider, can you talk about how that experience of doing research is different from someone like me or someone like, like someone who is doing research in their own community that they grew up in?

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, one of the challenges I had was, I wasn’t able to look at the language quite objectively as a researcher because the first thing I wanted to do was to acquire that language rather than to study that language. I had a very strong motivation for acquiring that language because it’s my father’s language, and I always wanted to acquire that language after I knew that the language is in danger, and, you know, so the motivation was that in the future I would be a semi-native speaker of the language. So that was a challenge for me. The process of describing the Irabu language was like reversing language shift. It was more like learning to speak my father’s native language than just studying the target language objectively. So for an outsider researcher who is purely interested in describing the language the fieldwork was like a scientific process, but for me, you know, it was very personal. At the first period of my fieldwork, I wasn’t focused on describing the language at all. I was just, I wanted to get involved in that community, and I wanted to learn the language from the native speakers, so… I didn’t do any, you know, scientific research in the first period of fieldwork. I’m not sure whether that approach was best for scientists, but yeah, I just wanted to speak that language first before I, you know, become a field researcher, so it was a big challenge.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. I think that people might argue that taking that initial time, though, to learn the language sufficiently would make the scientific research so much better later in the long run. Can you tell us more about the language context of Irabu Miyako?

Michinori Shimoji: Okay. Irabu is spoken on Irabu Island, which lies near Miyako Island. The Miyako Island is the center of the Miyako-jima city officially, and there are about 5,000 or 6,000 people living in the Irabu Island and 40,000 in Miyako Island. So there’s a big difference between the two, the size between the two islands. And yeah, there are 5,000 people in Irabu, but the number of native speakers is much less than that number, as all the speakers are elders maybe over 65 or 70 years old and the younger generations do not speak the Irabu language anymore, so it is a typical endangered language. And I estimated the number of native speakers in my PhD thesis as 2,000 or less than that number, and this language will, might die out in 20 years or so if there’s no reverse language shift or something. And recently Irabu Island and the Miyako Island have been connected by a very long bridge 3 kilometers long, and it certainly will affect the demographic situation of Irabu Island. For example, as the land in Irabu is still much cheaper than Miyakojima city, city center, people living in Miyako mainland may decide to live in Irabu, which will mean much for language inheritance and the chance for the language to survive. Yeah, there will be a much demographic change in the near future in Irabu Island.

MTB: Is the variety spoken on Miyako-jima, is there a high level of mutual intelligibility with Irabu, or not so much?

Michinori Shimoji: Irabu people can understand Miyako language, but the Miyako people would not be able to speak or hear the Irabu language because Miyako language is like a de facto standard language in the Miyako-jima city. So, you know, people can, you know… They are familiar with Miyako language in some way.

MTB: Yeah, that’s interesting. Is it different across like all areas (like lexicon, phonology, intonation), or is there one specific thing that is more distinct between Irabu and Miyako?

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, phonology is quite similar, but the grammar is different, and the lexicon is also slightly different, and the local people, within Irabu Island, there’s a slight difference between each (how can I say) regions. There are four regional dialects spoken on Irabu Island, and yeah, each of them have slightly different dialectal variation.

MTB: That’s really interesting. I think you spoke a little bit about your main research interest of descriptive linguistics.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah.

MTB: Do you want to speak more about that?

Michinori Shimoji: Okay. Yeah, as I mentioned, my interest lies in describing the whole system of language. “The whole system” means, you know, from sound to grammar, from sound to discourse organization, you know, in the form of a descriptive grammar. I’m not interested in, you know, taking up different topics and discussing them in an isolated manner, because they are all connected as a system. So yeah, my goal is to describe, you know, this complex system as a whole. I want to deal with language rather than the construction of a language. Yeah, so this is my interest.

MTB: In your opinion, do you think that there is space for, or there is a place for, outsider researchers in the Ryukyus, and if so, is there something that you’ve noticed that outsiders often get wrong when they’re working in the Ryukyuan context?

Michinori Shimoji: Oh, okay. As for the first question, yeah, I think there is much space for outsiders to the research on Ryukyu. Can I ask you back, why did you decide to ask this question? Do you feel something about…

MTB: Well… Oh, so I work in Amami Ōshima in the Setouchi town, which spans the southern part of Amami Ōshima, and then three smaller islands south, Kakeromo, Yoro, and Uke, which also make up part of the town. And so I’ve worked with this community since 2017, and in my experience, people have always been very welcoming, and I think I’ve been very lucky that people have welcomed me and invited me and wanted to work with me, but I think this is not everyone’s experience and that some people think that only insiders should do language documentation and that it should be closed to outsiders.

Michinori Shimoji: Okay. Hm. It’s not common in Ryukyu for, you know, the local people to feel that their language is stolen by the researchers, which probably, which is often the case in other lesser-known language communities. I often have this kind of situation, but I don’t think it’s common in Ryukyu, but sometimes it does happen, especially when outsider researchers just come to the field and do the research and go back to their institutions. It often happens because, you know, doing fieldwork is itself a very tough task, so people want to focus on their research, you know, rather than making friends with the local people, and, you know, sometimes helping them in the field, you know, having personal connections, keeping the personal connections, all these kinds of things are — many people think that it’s not part of the linguistic analysis, it’s not part of what linguists do. So sometimes people get wrong when they decide to focus on linguistic aspects only, and the local people feel that, you know, and, as you said earlier, you know, sometime earlier, there is research fatigue on the part of the local people. So I think outsider researchers may get wrong when this kind of thing happens.

MTB: Yeah. I think it’s actually kind of lazy if researchers don’t invest in the local community, if they say like, “Oh, I’m only here to do linguistics. I don’t have time or I don’t have energy to spend time with people and make personal connections.” Yeah, I can’t understand that feeling, and I think people who say things like that, they’re not looking at the community as people. They’re just seeing them as data. Maybe they should not do fieldwork. They should do like corpus linguistics or something.

Michinori Shimoji: And when you go to some, you know, research meetings or a society, theoretical linguists often ask us, “Why didn’t you ask these minimal pairs? Why didn’t you get this data?” But, you know, when we are in the field, it’s sometimes very difficult to make our research intention understood by the local people, and we don’t want to, you know, have a very huge pressure to the local people, you know, to spend much time on thinking about very complex minimal pairs and these kinds of things. In some cases, it’s a very good thing for us to give up at a certain point for this time, and, you know, I mean, we need to divide our labor in separate fieldtrips rather than, you know, focus on one fieldtrip to get all the data.

MTB: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Michinori Shimoji: So this makes, you know, local people feel, you know, tired.

MTB: Yeah, I get really agitated when I think about people who just take people’s time and don’t respect people’s time, and… Oh, it makes me extremely ira ira [annoyed].

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, ira ira [annoying].

MTB: Yeah. I think also, you never know what kind of data you will actually get if you might start the session wanting to answer some specific question, but I’ve had so many recording sessions where I thought the session was kind of going wrong, like not going the way I had expected, and I wasn’t able to answer any of the questions I had, but then in the end those recordings ended up being very valuable for some other reason that I, at the time, I couldn’t anticipate.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, unexpected fieldwork.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Okay. So this question is from a listener, a Ryukyuan listener, and she wrote: “People from different fields have been working hard to document, describe, and revitalize Ryukyuan languages. Do you have any thoughts on what we can do to respond to the holistic community needs as a next step?”

Michinori Shimoji: Collaborative research will become vital for Ryukyuan studies in the future, and probably it’s now, it’s occurring in Ryukyuan studies, but yeah, collaborative research will become vital. Some researchers specializes in description of the language system (like me), and others in historical issues of the language, and still others in sociolinguistic aspects, and all these kinds of people get together to do some collaborative research on one island or a main island, and, you know, this will, you know, make the Ryukyuan research multi-dimensional and very rich. In this context, we need to (how can I say) we need to bring the local people into this research trend, in collaborative research, so they can, you know, give us feedback to our research, and they can give us feedback, they can give us an opinion from the local people, what they want us to do. And in the documentation process, you know, it’s necessary for us to set up some orthography, for example. So in this kind of process, the local people’s opinion is very important. So I think collaborative research is one key notion in the future of Ryukyuan researchers.

And as for revitalizing things, to be honest, I’m not quite sure whether the idea of language revitalization is realistic in the Ryukyuan context. I think documentation and teaching the community their heritage language is very important in some respects, but when we talk about language revitalization, sometimes it’s not a easy step to take. I don’t know whether revitalizing a language for the community has much impact on their successful future. The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that they cannot speak the local language, but in the fact that the contemporary world goes without considering minority people, so the language loss is a result of this general problem, and this problem and this general problem, the problem that the contemporary world goes without considering minorities, is only solved by questioning and changing the current socioeconomic system. So Ryukyuan people, especially Okinawan people, still, you know, suffer from discrimination in such a way that Japanese government sacrifice Okinawan people to keep the US Marine bases for the defense policy of Japan, and Japanese peoples are silent to this situation, and Okinawan people think that it’s a very typical situation of discrimination. So this kind of general problem should be solved first, but people are not so much interested in revitalizing the language in this context. Even if Okinawan people had succeeded in preserving their own language, the situation, the current situation that, you know, they are discriminated, would have been the same or even worse, and as Japanese people tend to misunderstand that, you know, that those speaking different languages foreign people. And it is true that revitalizing Okinawan might be effective in uniting their identity again against Japanese in this situation, but in such a case, probably Shuri Okinawan, which is the capital language, which is the language used to be spoken in the capital of Ryukyuan dynasty, would be chosen as a language to revitalize. And historically, that language was a killer language for other minority languages in Okinawa, so this way, revitalizing the local language will lead to killing minority local languages, which would be, you know, simply an irony. Right? So the language revitalization thing is a very difficult topic for me, and I keep myself a little bit away from this topic, and I focused on working on description and documentation of as many Ryukyuan languages as possible. I’m not sure, yeah, whether I can answer the listener’s question, but yeah, this is my opinion about revitalization.

MTB: Yeah. I think that issue you mentioned of potentially standardizing and deciding, “Okay, the language that is going to be the focus of revitalization would be Shuri Ryukyuan,” but then where would that leave, I mean… Like Yaeyama, or Yonaguni, or Amami are very far from Okinawa, so I don’t think people in Amami are going to start speaking Shuri. There’s just no way.

Michinori Shimoji: No, no way.

MTB: It’s not realistic.

Michinori Shimoji: And there’s a political problem. Amami is spoken in the Kagoshima prefecture.

MTB: Yeah, Kagoshima prefecture, yeah.

Michinori Shimoji: And other Ryukyuan languages are spoken in Okinawa prefecture, so there’s a prefecture border, and language policy always, you know, go with political border, so a prefectural, you know, division affects this…

MTB: Like ideological border?

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, ideological problem, border.

MTB: Yeah, I think it is true that, because Amami is part of Kagoshima, I feel it often gets a little bit left out with Ryukyuan studies because it’s so… It’s not part of the same prefecture. So yeah, it’s difficult. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do fieldwork in the Ryukyus?

Michinori Shimoji: Okay. My advice is practical advice, and it can be applied to any field situations, but it’s definitely helpful for those who, you know, conduct the fieldwork in Ryukyus. If you want to conduct fieldwork (especially for writing a PhD thesis), please divide your whole project into three parts. The first one should be a short field trip for one month or so, and the second one should be very long (six months to a year), and the third one should be again shorter (one or two months).

In the first fieldwork, please don’t think it’s a fieldwork. Please, don’t be keen on collecting data or testing your hypothesis. Rather, you need to make friends with the local people and learn to speak the language as a learner rather than a researcher of the language, and don’t treat them as informants at this stage or at any later stage. This way, you know, you can make yourself understood by the local people, and you can make personal connections with the local community. Then you can start the linguistic analysis in the second fieldwork.

In the second fieldwork, you start being a linguist. Collect the data, and analyze it. And the fieldwork should be long enough so that you can analyze the data on-site rather than doing so after going back to your institution. If the field trip is very short, you have to focus on collecting the data, and you cannot spend much time on analysis, but it is analysis that makes your next data collection meaningful. Right? So the two steps… “Two steps” means collecting the data and analyzing it. These steps should go hand in hand. It always happened in the same time. That’s why I advise you you should spend at least six months in the field. It’s very enough time for doing so, and there should be a reasonable interval between the second fieldtrip and third one, like one year or six months, I think. You write up a draft of your thesis in your institution and have a feedback to it and know what kind of data is lacking and not, what kind of data is necessary for sharpening your argument. Then you can prepare for the third fieldtrip.

And the third one should be, of course, shorter than the second one, because the purpose of this, the fieldtrip, is just to fill the gaps. So this way you can make your whole project work.

MTB: Yeah. I think the biggest obstacle is just getting the funding to do enough trips to actually get, like to do the ideal amount of data collection, because I do agree that every time you go, it goes better, it goes more smoothly, you know what to expect, and you have more contacts.

Well, thank you, Michinori-san. This was really, really interesting, and it was kind of a thrill for me because we work in the same area, so thank you.

Michinori Shimoji: Oh, yeah. Yeah, thank you very much for having me as guest in this wonderful program.

MTB: Oh, thank you.

Michinori Shimoji: And yeah, it was a very good promotion for Ryukyuan studies.

MTB: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, I hope many younger generations, you know, will find Ryukyuan studies interesting.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Where can people learn more about your work and what you’re doing?

Michinori Shimoji: There is my personal website, so can you share the URL?

MTB: Yes.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, with the listener?

MTB: Yeah, I will link it.

Michinori Shimoji: Okay. Yeah, it’s in Japanese, but you can listen to the sound of Irabu Ryukyuan a little bit.

MTB: Great, and I’ll link those specific links too so that people can find them easily if they maybe don’t speak Japanese or don’t read Japanese, but they want to hear what Irabu sounds like.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah.

MTB: Well, thank you so much.

Michinori Shimoji: Yeah, thank you very much.

MTB: Otsukaresama.

Michinori Shimoji: Otsukaresama desu.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco, and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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